Fault line on Venezuela
Russian criticism of the US-led move to replace Venezuelan President Maduro crystallized into a veto of a US draft resolution at the UN Security Council (February 28), calling for restoration of democracy, fresh elections and recognition of self-proclaimed interim President Guaidó. The resolution got the requisite nine votes for, but the Russian (and Chinese) veto sank it. South Africa also voted against the resolution and three members abstained. Russia’s counter draft resolution, calling for a dialogue between the Government and the opposition, obviously had no chance of success – it got four votes for, seven against and four abstentions – with only the minor consolation of weaning away two members from the “US camp” – Equatorial Guinea, which supported and Kuwait, which abstained. A telephone conversation ensued between FM Lavrov and Secretary Pompeo on March 2, at which FM Lavrov (as per Russian MFA’s account) accused the US of interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country.
As the impasse continued, with the number of countries recognizing the new Venezuelan government stuck at 54, consultations were held between Russian Deputy FM Ryabkov and US Special Representative Abrams in Rome (March 19), at which representatives of the two National Security Councils were also reported to have participated. As per Russia’s MFA, a “candid and substantive exchange of views revealed a number of fundamental differences in the assessment of the causes and origins” of the Venezuelan crisis.
A qualitatively new situation emerged with news, initially that a contingent of the Russian private military company, Wagner Group, was in Caracas for Presidential security; and then that a 100-strong Russian military task force had arrived in two military aircraft. Secretary Pompeo telephoned FM Lavrov to tell him that the US and regional countries “will not stand idly by, as Russia exacerbates tensions in Venezuela”. In turn, FM Lavrov reportedly termed US “attempts to organise a coup d’etat” in Venezuela as “blatant interference” in its domestic affairs. As for the justification for Russia’s military intervention, it was claimed to be at the request of the legitimate Venezuelan government and consistent with a 2001 bilateral military cooperation agreement; therefore, not requiring any further approval by the Venezuelan National Assembly (which it would not have got).
The war of words escalated, with President Trump declaring that the US would consider “all options” to get Russia to leave Venezuela. NSA Bolton cautioned against “actors external to the Western Hemisphere” deploying military assets in Venezuela. Other Administration officials threatened strong diplomatic actions, including sanctions. The Russian responses were dismissive. MFA accused the US of behaving like a “cowboy in the Louvre,” undermining international order. In response to NSA Bolton’s caution, he was advised to look at a world map: Chukotka in the Russian Fareast is in the Western Hemisphere and not too distant from the US. As for sanctions, the MFA spokesperson declared that Russia was used to escalating sanctions and more would not make much difference, adding that when sanctions were imposed on Rosneft, the company continued to make profits, while American companies, which were forced to sever links with it, suffered. This last point is significant: since virtually every kind of sanction has already been imposed on Russia, it is difficult to see how more pain can be administered through additional sanctions. Moreover, some of the sanctions have hurt Western companies; in some cases, transferring their business to China.
There is much speculation about Russian motivations and intentions. A Russian military analyst (Pavel Felgenhauer, Eurasian Daily Monitor, January 31) has reported that the head of the Russian task force is of senior military rank – a former Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and a veteran of the Afghanistan and Chechen wars. According to him, this indicates that his mission could be to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Maduro government and security establishment and to draw up a list of measures required to ensure regime survival. Felgenhauer points out that the Russian entry into Syria in 2015 was preceded by similar high-level missions. However, it is difficult to assume that Russia has the political, economic or military stamina to sustain such an out of area operation, an ocean away and in a country where it does not have major strategic interests. Venezuela is, in every respect, different from Syria.
The US Special Representative for Venezuela let slip at a media conference that one of the tasks of the Russian force was to fix the damage to Venezuela’s S-300 air defence system, which had been damaged in the external cyberattack that had taken down a large part of the country’s power supply. He made an interesting distinction between Chinese and Russian interests in Venezuela: the former, he said, is essentially seeking to protect its loans and investments in the country, while the latter sees it as an area of geopolitical challenge to the United States (this ignores the fact that Rosneft has also significant investments in the Venezuelan oil industry). China should be pleased with this US assessment.
Walking a tightrope on Syria
The last ISIS bastion of Baghouz fell to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, but a Syrian political settlement still appeared distant. Russia remained at the centre of efforts to draw together the multiple strands of the Syrian political process, papering over widening cracks between the Astana process partners and keeping the Syrian government on board in the exercise of finalizing the Syrian Constitutional Committee.
The effort to clear Idlib of extremists remained a delicate issue with Turkey. The failure of the Putin-Erdogan agreement of September 2018 (see Review, 9/18) was tacitly acknowledged by the defence forces of the two sides entering into a fresh agreement in early-March, under which Russian troops were introduced in the mix to patrol one side of a “buffer” zone, with Turkish troops patrolling the other. Russia went a step further and commenced airstrikes against Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) targets in Idlib, apparently reacting to attacks on its airbase in Khmeimim.
Russian actions tried to balance Turkish ambitions against Syrian and Iranian apprehensions. Even as it cooperated with Russia in Idlib operations, Turkey was reported to be trying to co-opt HTS into the coalition of Syrian opposition groups under its control and to draw the Saudi-based Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC) into a broad Syrian opposition coalition under a Turkish umbrella. Russia countered this effort, both by keeping up military pressure on HTS and by a Saudi-arranged meeting in Riyadh with the HNC to seek its support for negotiations on the composition of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. FM Lavrov hinted at continuing issues with the Syrian government on this. A further twist was given by Israeli PM Netanyahu’s revelation that he and President Putin had agreed (at their meeting in end-February) to form a joint working group to work towards the pull out of all foreign troops from Syria – the obvious reference being to Iran and Hezbollah. Russian analysts saw this as an indication of a widening rift between Russia and Iran and as the trigger for a sudden and unannounced visit by Syrian President Assad to Tehran, where he was received by both President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei. Shortly thereafter, the Army Chiefs of both Iran and Iraq were in Syria to discuss strategy.
Despite the machinations on the ground, Russia and Turkey presented a united front at a meeting of their Foreign Ministers (29 March), preparatory to a Summit planned in April. They expressed “full agreement” on “strict” implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254, reaffirmed the vitality of the Astana format, agreed to expedite the constitution of the Constitutional Committee and discussed cooperation for a demilitarised zone in Idlib. The two Ministers noted the important economic and defence linkages, which (see Review, 2/19) provide the centripetal counter to the centrifugal forces of divergence in strategic perspectives.
Amidst the other uncertainties, there appeared to be a better level of communications between the US and Russia on Syria developments. The Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and his US counterpart were reported to have discussed coordination of operations, including post-US withdrawal. The US Special Envoy for Syria told the media that the US was working with Russia to further the UN process, that the Russians were working hard on the Constitutional Committee, were “forthcoming in ideas” and were “helpful” on these issues. The reported agreement between President Putin and PM Netanyahu may have helped to set the tone. It remains to be seen whether that agreement was merely tactical – for Israel, a useful input before its elections, and for Russia, a negotiating ploy with the US and (possibly) pressure on an already beleaguered Iran for concessions on Syria or other issues.
Consultations on Afghanistan
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Khalilzad met his Russian, Chinese and EU counterparts on March 21—22. They issued two separate statements, one US-Russia-China and the other US-EU, though they were all at the same meeting. The former statement underscores “respect for the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity” of Afghanistan and its right to make its own political, security, and economic decisions. The three agreed to seek “common efforts and coordination” in the Afghan peace process.
There are a few remarkable aspects to this meeting. Firstly, Afghanistan was not invited to it, though it has been a universal mantra that an Afghan political process should be Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled and inclusive. Secondly, the US and Russia have been involved in mutual recriminations over years, with the US accusing Russia of aiding and arming the Taliban and Russia accusing the US of massing assorted terrorists at the Afghan-Central Asia borders. Now they have come together to find common ground on Afghanistan, without Afghanistan and without other important regional stakeholders like India. Russia would take great satisfaction from the fact that, through its recent dialogue initiatives, it has earned an invitation to the international negotiations table on Afghanistan. Finally, it is quite clear that all players have taken Pakistan’s assistance to establish dialogue with the Taliban.
We have, therefore, reached the stage of a P5-owned, Pakistan-controlled and Afghanistan-exclusive process for a settlement in Afghanistan.
Nordstream2 issues continue
US pressure on Germany and the EU to scrap the Russia-Germany Nordstream2 (NS2) gas pipeline project has been covered at length in earlier Reviews (see, in particular, Review 2/19). The pressure continued, with the US Energy Secretary telling the media that the US is considering imposition of sanctions on all companies associated with the project.
Meanwhile, Denmark – the only country still to grant permission for the project (Russia, Finland, Sweden and Germany have done so) – has apparently asked Gazprom to take a new route outside Danish territorial waters (NS1 is in Danish waters). While Gazprom has submitted plans for the new route, environmental clearances may take several months after Denmark’s approval (if it is given), thus ensuring that NS2 cannot be commissioned by the end of 2019, when gas transit arrangements with Ukraine lapse. This would improve Ukraine’s negotiating position on transit fees.
Russia blames the US for India’s ASAT test
Reacting to India’s anti-satellite weapon test (March 27), Russia’s MFA noted India’s declarations that it was not directed against any country and that India remains opposed to weaponization and arms race in outer space.
It then goes on to say that “in many respects”, this Indian action was the result of the “substantially degraded situation” in arms control that has resulted from destructive actions of the US, weakening the architecture of international strategic stability by “unlimited expansion” of its global missile defence systems and unwillingness to abandon its space weaponization plans, thus forcing other countries to develop similar systems to strengthen their national security.
The statement further urges the US to reconsider its stance on these issues and to abandon its unrealizable goal of universal military domination.